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Mentor of Unheard Stories 



The farmhouse sits on a sleepy back road near the Ashokan Reservoir, its front porch halfhidden by an immense rhododendron. Screenwriter Zach Sklar opens the kitchen door, wearing a Saratoga Racetrack tee-shirt. He’s lean and fine-featured, with a welcoming smile tempered by a guardedness that seems hard-wired into his posture.

Pancho, a cocker spaniel rescued from an abusive home, frisks around, wagging his tail. Sklar’s longtime partner, film composer Sarah Plant, is pan-frying matzo brei at the stove, and the smell of caramelized onions sweetens the air. A health-conscious vegetarian, Sklar tries to avoid both sugar and gluten, but he’s treating himself to a brownie today.

The living room is low-key and homey. The only clues to its owners’ professions are a 3-D mockup of a cinema with a marquee reading Eat Drink Man Woman (Plant was associate music director) and a magnum champagne bottle with a logo for JFK (Sklar wrote the screenplay with director Oliver Stone).

“I grew up with a lot of writers,” he says, settling into a chair with his contraband brownie within easy reach. “We had a surrogate family that was built around two things: Most of them had been in the Communist Party, and most of them were writers.”

Sklar’s father, a politically active New York playwright and novelist, was wooed to Hollywood with others like Clifford Odets. Though George Sklar’s Broadway plays “Laura” (written with Vera Caspary) and “Merry-Go-Round” (written with Albert Maltz) and his novel The Two Worlds of Johnny Truro were optioned by studios, he spent most of his time as a salaryman, doing endless rewrites to support his family.

The youngest of three children, Zach was born in 1948. A year later, George Sklar was named before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Refusing to testify, he was blacklisted alongside Dalton Trumbo, Waldo Salt, Ring Lardner Jr., and other noted screenwriters. “My entire life was after he was out of film,” Sklar says.

His mother, Miriam Blecher Sklar, a former Martha Graham dancer, became the family breadwinner, teaching modern dance classes for children and later for adults. “She was a very gifted teacher. People loved her,” says Sklar, “But she kept her dance life totally separate from us. She never danced at home. We never danced.”

Her husband became a recluse. “He crumbled a bit psychologically,” Sklar says, emotion choking his voice. “He didn’t fight back. He didn’t wilt—didn’t name names or sacrifice his principles—but he didn’t leave the house.”

He also never discussed his political affiliations, so his children would not have to lie if they were questioned. After his death in 1988, Sklar and his siblings—playwright Daniel Sklar and writer Judith Sklar Rasminsky—were sorting their father’s possessions when his Communist Party card fell out of a book. “I just gasped,” Sklar recalls. “He never told, even long after the blacklist was over.”

Like many blacklistees, George Sklar warned his children against political activism, cautioning them not to sign petitions or get their pictures taken. “Of course, the first thing I did was sign petitions and go to demonstrations,” says Zach, who came of age during the Vietnam era.

He attended the newly formed University of California at Santa Cruz, which he describes as “a very communal-minded place” in Reagan-governed California. “But I was frightened. That was one of the big messages—not subconscious, it was pounded into me. ‘Don’t accept the way things are. Fight for justice, but you can get hurt. Be careful.’ It was a very schizophrenic message. When I did things, it was always, always a way of overcoming that fear.”
During college, he worked as a volunteer on poverty-stricken Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina. There were about 100 residents, all black. “It was like being in the 19th century: no paved roads or running water,” Sklar says. For a politically conscious Angeleno, seeing black people cross into the street in deference as a white person passed was shocking. “I was exposed to things I’d never been exposed to. People living in shacks with newspapers on the walls, eating squirrels. I buried a body.” He also worked with Donald Gatch, an idealistic doctor who served a community in which 80 percent of the children had malnutrition and parasites. “It was life-changing,” Sklar says. “An abrupt introduction into the contradictions of life in America.”

That summer, Sklar’s family rented a house in Beacon, and the three siblings drove to the Woodstock festival. The closest they could get was 12 miles away. They parked on the roadside and hiked in, arriving at 3am to hear Joan Baez finishing her set in the distance. They slept in a field in the pouring rain, and hiked the 12 miles back the next morning. “We never really heard any music at all,” Sklar laughs.

For several years, he took a series of blue-collar jobs, including lawn maintenance in a trailer park housing the last remnants of the Merry Pranksters (“You could still see the day-glo on the barn ceiling”) and crewing on a salmon boat in Alaska. “I got a jellyfish in my eye on my birthday, and thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” Sklar recalls. It was 1973, the year of the Watergate break-ins. Inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, Sklar applied to Columbia’s journalism school.

After graduation, he worked as a proofreader at Time and Life, and edited a national law magazine called Juris Doctor. He also edited books for the left-leaning Sheridan Square Press and wrote for the Nation, becoming its executive editor while Richard Lingeman was on leave. In 1984, he joined an international brigade picking coffee in Nicaragua, and fell in love with the woman who interviewed him. Sarah Plant was hard to pin down, but Sklar suggested they meet for breakfast in Riverside Park, and brought along a squeezer and fresh oranges. “I think that got her,” he laughs.

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